Global Affairs

Russia's orchestrated return to the Middle East

The positioning of troops in Syria is part of Moscow's gambit to regain influence on the global stage

LONDON • Just a few weeks ago, Russia was marginalised, its economy hammered by sanctions, and its leaders publicly shunned as punishment for Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine.

But when Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York later today, every world leader will be listening attentively. For the Russian head of state - once famously dismissed by United States President Barack Obama as a relic of the past, someone "on the wrong side of history" - is now a major strategic player in the Middle East, the man who may hold the key to ending the Syrian civil war.

How Mr Putin accomplished this surprising transformation from pariah to essential partner through the simple expedient of deploying a mere handful of Russian troops and equipment to Syria is not just a matter of academic interest; it serves as a key indication to how Russia will behave for many years to come, and how the Russians see their role on the global stage.

STAKES IN THE MIDDLE EAST

There is no doubt that Russia has always had a significant national interest and strategic stake in the Middle East. The region borders Russia's "soft underbelly", its vast southern provinces largely inhabited by ethnic Muslim minorities who account for at least 15 per cent of Russia's overall population and are liable to be infected by the rising Islamic fundamentalism and culture of violence that now afflicts the Arab world.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Furthermore, the Middle East is crucial to the global supply price of oil and gas, which are also Russia's chief trading commodities. Therefore, Russia's stake in the Middle East is far more significant than that of Britain, France or Turkey, which, as colonial powers, have claimed a right to dabble in the region for centuries.

But there is equally no doubt that, historically, Moscow has played its cards badly in the Middle East.

Until the early 1970s, the Soviet Union was the patron of the Middle East's most important and powerful Arab states: Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Yet it lost its Middle Eastern allies one after another, and its regional strategic influence was largely wiped out when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Nor was Russia able to regain a foothold in the Middle East after the end of the Cold War by extending a cooperative hand. Lucrative Arab or Israeli arms markets remained dominated by Western - and particularly American - weapon manufacturers.

Russia's consent or acquiescence was sometimes sought when UN resolutions related to the Middle East had to be adopted. But no sooner had Moscow given its consent than it was promptly ignored: That was what happened with the Western military operations in Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011.

It was largely in order to stop this constant marginalisation that President Putin decided to make a stand over Syria, Russia's last Middle Eastern ally, and the only place in the region where the once-mighty Russian navy still has a base. Mr Putin was determined that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should not be overthrown by a Western-led military campaign disguised as yet another "fight for democracy".

At first sight, the Russians have succeeded in this objective: the Syrian civil war has lasted four years, killed at least a quarter of a million people and displaced a further four million, but the Syrian regime is still standing. So, why has Mr Putin suddenly decided to up the stakes by deploying extra Russian troops to Syria?

Partly because Moscow is realising that Mr Assad is on his way out and that, whether Russia wants it or not, the current regime will have to be replaced; the positioning of Russian troops there is to ensure that no successor to Mr Assad will be able to take over without Russian approval.

The presence of the Russian contingent may also be required to help with the possible evacuation of an estimated 30,000 Russian citizens who continue to work and live in Syria. And the deployment is clearly designed to ensure that, whatever happens inside Syria, the Russian port facility at Tartus at a strategically crucial point of the eastern Mediterranean remains untouched.

Just as with the Russian decision to intervene in the Ukraine a year ago, the move into Syria was accomplished in secret and conducted by crack units, with not a word being initially said in public by the Russian government.

But far more important is the political message which this Russian deployment sends. Just as with the Russian decision to intervene in the Ukraine a year ago, the move into Syria was accomplished in secret and conducted by crack units, with not a word being initially said in public by the Russian government.

It was only when news of the Russian deployment leaked out from Israeli intelligence services did the Russian state even acknowledge what it was doing. This is now becoming the preferred Russian strategy: A quiet and sudden deployment, which remains utterly deniable until it becomes a fact on the ground that cannot be reversed, unless the West is prepared to fight over it, which it invariably is not.

And, just as in Ukraine, Mr Putin has given an indication that he knows how to combine political initiatives with military risk-taking in forging a global outlook.

A PACKAGE DEAL

The Russian objective is to offer the West a package deal: Abandon Ukraine and drop the economic sanctions, in return for Russian cooperation in the Middle East, or at least a free hand for the West to do what it pleases in the region, provided Moscow is now recognised as a partner at the "top table" of diplomacy.

President Putin cares little about whether he is loved, but he wants to be feared and he is determined that Russia will regain its role as the indispensable partner in the solution of any crisis.

Mr Putin also seems determined to avoid the diplomatic mistakes which the Soviet Union committed in the Middle East. Russia is not pledged to defend the status quo in Syria: Moscow has hinted that it is quite prepared to sacrifice President Assad if the price is right. Mr Putin has also been careful not to align himself too close to Iran in this conflict. And the Russian leader professes a "special relationship" with Israel, while defending the Syrian leader. In short, Russia has done everything to make itself useful and keep all its options open, so that it can pick the very best diplomatic bargain.

It is a huge, audacious gambit, but one which appears to be working. Russia's return to the role of a key Middle East player has already been accepted as fact by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by the Palestinian leaders and by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of whom rushed to Moscow for talks with President Putin last week.

And later on today, it will be the turn of President Obama to swallow his misgivings and meet the Russian leader.

It is just possible that renewed US-Russian cooperation may kick-start a more orderly transfer of power in Syria, and at least give some faint hope that the current vicious war may abate. And it is possible that acquiescence from Russia will give the US and its Western allies greater credibility in intensifying air strikes against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist organisation.

NO LONG-TERM SOLUTION

Still, while the kind of Russian cooperation which Mr Putin is now offering may help avoid further problems in the Middle East, the fact remains that Russia has no better idea than the West on what needs to be done to stabilise the Middle East region, or how to deal with either Islamic fundamentalism or ethnic terrorism.

Indeed, an association between Western powers and Russia may fuel even greater resentment in the Muslim world, and compound future difficulties. Nor would a diplomatic package deal which abandons Ukraine in return for Russian cooperation in Syria do anything for US credibility in Europe, or for America's standing with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which are already seething with anger against Mr Putin.

Yet the most significant message from this affair is a warning to the West that the showdown it had with Russia over Ukraine last year was not a one-off event, but part of a sustained campaign to reassert Russia's role on the global stage.

The future belongs to many more of these Putin stunts and to many more appearances of his ill-disguised "green men", the crack Russian units who appear out of nowhere to buttress Russia's role on the global stage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Russia's orchestrated return to the Middle East'. Print Edition | Subscribe